computer hardware

The Difference Between Software and Firmware


When we think of computers, be it phones or laptops, we usually think about their software and hardware capabilities. These are often the metrics we use to judge their power and capability at running certain tasks as well as their processing power, but one of the factors that many people forget is firmware. Firmware is an integral part of the machines that we use on a daily basis, be it our phones or even in our cars, but what exactly is firmware and what is the difference between that and software.


What Is Software?

When we use our laptops, we are using software that gives the laptop sets of instructions, data or programmes to perform a particular task. There are three different categories of software: system software, application software and programme languages. The most common software that the majority of us will deal with on a daily basis are the application software, under this heading you will find programmes such as word processing suits, image editors or communication platforms.

Software applications are the top level of code that users will interact with regularly. Applications are often developed for a particular task, such as skype or word. Each of these is a software that you will need to download and install onto your laptop. System software is the operating system that your laptop runs, usually windows or OSX. Depending on which operating system you run, you will be given software recommendations to match as not all software applications can run across different operating systems. Finally, the last category is programme languages and unless you a computer programmer, you won’t see this or deal with this type of software.


What Is Firmware?

Firmware is software to a certain extent; it still runs lines of code like software, but users won’t interact with it on the same level. It is a type of programme that is embedded in our machines that provides a low level of control for specific hardware within the unit. Unlike software applications, firmware has to be a lot smaller due to where it is stored. It performs limited yet vital tasks to the overall running of the hardware. You will find firmware in a variety of products, not just laptops and phones. It can be in our cars, electronic goods such as DVD players and even modern fridges and freezers.


Can You Reprogram Firmware Like You Can Software?

If you are feeling brave, or know what you are doing, you can reprogram software to reflect the changes that you want to make. But more often than not, instead of you doing it, the software provider will edit the current programme, this is delivered to users in updates. These updates are just new lines of code which fix bugs, make it faster or give you new features. Unlike software, firmware is often hidden from users, so they cannot update, recode or mess with it in anyway. If you are unfamiliar with coding and ended up playing with the firmware, you would more than likely render your device useless. Think of firmware as the bottom level of the pyramid of code and software that you interact with as the top level. Unlike software, firmware doesn’t need to be updated, as firmware needs software to run it can be problematic attempting to update it (again, it is the bottom of the pyramid so updating it can be exceptionally hard), therefore manufactures tend to leave it well alone. Firmware handles minor tasks for the hardware, so it isn’t found in the computer processing unit, rather it has its own location within the computer to handle such things as flash memory chips.


Final Thoughts

Firmware is software and can be considered as such if you think about it in a pyramid format, the firmware and software both need each other, but they are independent of one another and stored very differently. The chances of you seeing the code for the firmware on your device is very slim, as the manufacture will go to great lengths to stop you interacting with it. Unlike software, firmware only handles very small tasks, but these tasks are vital and help with the running of your machine. Firmware doesn’t need updating unlike software, so once it is there, there is no changing it. If you find yourself in the firmware code of your laptop or phone, leave it well alone so you don’t render it useless.